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Valmont Estopped In Its Tracks by Armani

The issue of estoppel in the context of a rejected variation claim was recently considered by the NSW Court of Appeal in Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd v Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (No 2) [2021] NSWCA 93.

In this case, Valmont Interiors Pty Ltd (Valmont) was led to assume that it would be paid for additional joinery works that were directed by Giorgio Armani Australia Pty Ltd (Armani) as a purported variation.  However, as the procedure for claiming and approving variations under the contract was not adhered to, Armani sought to rely on the time bar in the variation provision to reject the claim.

Facts

In early 2016, Valmont entered into a contract with Armani to provide fit-out works for the new Emporio Armani store at Sydney Airport. The scope of works originally excluded certain joinery items, which were to be sourced by Armani from a third party supplier. However, shortly after the works commenced, the third party supplier was not able to meet the tight schedule for delivery and Armani directed Valmont to supply the joinery items.

Valmont supplied the joinery items but Armani refused to pay for them on the basis that Valmont did not follow the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation and waived its claim.  Relevantly, this clause provided that if Valmont considered that a direction of Armani constituted a variation it was required to give notice of the purported variation with five business days.  This clause also provided that failure to provide notice within the specified time period resulted in Valmont releasing and waiving any entitlement to a claim.

Valmont’s position was that Armani should be estopped from relying on the time bar in clause 15 to reject the claim because Armani did also not follow the procedure in clause 15 for instructing the supply of the additional joinery items (as well as for previous other variations).  As a result of this, Valmont argued that Armani led it to assume that strict compliance with the procedure in clause 15 was not required in order to claim payment for the additional joinery work.

The First Decision

The primary judge held that, although Valmont did not strictly comply with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract for claiming a variation, Armani was estopped from relying on the time bar in that clause and that the costs of certain variation were recoverable by Valmont.

However, the primary judge also found that at a certain point in time (being 11 April 2016), email correspondence between the parties corrected Valmont’s assumption that it could claim payment for variations without complying with the procedure set out in clause 15 of the contract and that Armani would rely on strict compliance with that procedure for future variations.  Accordingly, it was held that the estoppel ceased on that date and the costs of purposed variations after that date (including the additional joinery works) were not recoverable.

The Appeal

On appeal the Court disagreed with the primary judge and found that the estoppel continued to operate after the 11 April 2016 email because:

  1. the email did not displace Valmont’s assumption that was induced by Armani that it would be paid for supplying the additional joinery works. This was partly because Armani’s email was not sufficiently clear to correct Valmont’s assumption (ie. that strict compliance with clause 15 of the contract was not required in order to be paid for additional joinery works);
  2. the email conveyed that the supply of the joinery was not a variation but additional works outside of the contract;
  3. Valmont was entitled to expect to be paid for the additional joinery works that were directed by Armani. The fact that it continued to incur liabilities after receiving the email from Armani demonstrated that the email did not correct Valmont’s understanding of the situation.  Further, Valmont relied on that understanding to its detriment, and as it was no longer possible for Valmont to comply with clause 15 of the contract it could not overcome the detriment already suffered; and
  4. in the circumstances, it was unconscionable for Armani to refuse to pay Valmont for the additional joinery works.

Take home tips

We understand that in administering contracts parties do not always strictly comply with the procedures and timing set out in the contract for claims, especially if the parties consider they have a good relationship or believe that strict compliance is too formal.  This case highlights the potential serious consequences of taking that approach.

Parties to a contract should be aware of the risks of acting inconsistently with their rights under the contract (ie. in Armani’s case, not requiring compliance with the terms of the contract for claiming variations and also not formally directing variations), as this could lead to those rights being lost and there not being a basis to reject claims.

If a principal or head contractor (or other party in a similar position) is concerned that a particular state of affairs exists between them and the downstream party that is inconsistent with the contract, it is crucial that the principal or head contractor:

  1. corrects that understanding by stating in clear and precise terms that the current understanding must be departed from and that strict compliance with the contract is required;
  2. provides sufficient notice of this so that the downstream party has time to comply with the procedure in the contract for claims and can attempt to overcome any detriment; and
  3. then strictly requires and enforces the procedure in the contract for claims so as to avoid any doubt that another state of affairs exists between the parties.

 

Cooler heads will prevail – Tribunal finds that direct notice of termination of a home building contract is not required

It is not uncommon in home building projects for disputes to occur at the end of the project in relation to the quality of the work carried out by the Builder and a claim for outstanding money by the Builder.  Inevitably, this can lead to the contract coming to end by way of abandonment, termination or repudiation.

If the matter proceeds to a Court or Tribunal, the first issue to be determined is:

  • whether the contract is still on foot;
  • whether the contract has been terminated; and
  • if the contract has been terminated, whether that termination was valid.

The answers to these questions will dictate the parties’ entitlement to claim damages (and the types of damages) and ultimately, the outcome of any legal proceedings.

In an ideal world, the terminating party would issue a notice of breach or default under the contract, which would result in a termination of the contract if the breaches are not remedied.

Building cases are never this clear cut and more often than not, the Courts and Tribunals have to delve into the conduct of the parties and what their intentions were in ascertaining whether the contract is still on foot, or whether it has been terminated validly or otherwise.

In the case of Rudas and Andrassy v Eid [2021] NSWCATAP 4 the Tribunal dealt with this very issue of termination of a home building contract by the Owners in the absence of any direct notice to the Builder and what circumstances or conduct would give rise to a finding that the contract was no longer on foot.

The first Tribunal determination

  1. The Owners entered into a home building contract with the Builder to carry out renovations at their property in Frenchs Forest (Site).
  2. In the first instance, the Tribunal found that the Builder abandoned the Site before completing the building works and thereby repudiated the building contract as the Builder ceased carrying out the building works at the Site and removed all of his tools and any materials that he felt he could use elsewhere.
  3. The Owners made a claim against the Builder under the Home Building Act 1989 (NSW) (HBA Act) for costs to complete the building works by another builder consequent upon their acceptance of the Builder’s repudiation of the building contract and its termination by them.
  4. The Tribunal held that even though the Builder had repudiated the contract, the contract still remained on-foot because the Tribunal was not satisfied that the Owners had terminated the contract by accepting the repudiation of the Builder. The Tribunal found that there was no evidence relied upon by the Owners that they accepted the Builder’s repudiation by their conduct of engaging another builder and further, there was no evidence that the Builder knew of this conduct.

The Appeal

5. The Owners appealed the determination principally on the basis that the Tribunal erred in failing to find that the contract had been terminated.

6. The appeal panel upheld the Owners’ appeal and determined that the Tribunal did determine this issue incorrectly for the following reasons:

(i)  there is no real issue as to the legal principles applicable to determine whether an innocent party to a contract has accepted the other party’s repudiation and thereby terminated the contract.  In other words, any communication or conduct which clearly conveys to the repudiating party that the aggrieved party is treating the contract as at an end is sufficient; and

(ii)  where the innocent party has by conduct elected to treat the contract as at an end, it is sufficient that the fact of election comes to the repudiating party’s attention.

Examples of conduct that would demonstrate that the contract has been terminated in the absence of any direct notice to the other party

In this case, the Tribunal said:

(i)   the commencement of the proceedings and/or the service of an appropriate pleading, claiming relief on the basis of termination for breach or otherwise clearly conveying in such pleading that the aggrieved party is treating the contract as at an end can be regarded as communication of the innocent party’s acceptance of repudiation and subsequent termination; and

(ii)    the commencement of the proceedings by the Owners claiming damages based upon the cost to complete the works will act as the communication of the prior election to treat the building contract as terminated, if this had not previously occurred. Indeed, the Owners in this case could have simply claimed damages on the basis of the contract coming to an end without more.

The Tribunal determination also contained a table of examples of cases where a termination has been held to have taken place, despite the absence of any direct notice to the relevant party, see below:

Case Paragraph
“The actual commencement of the hearing of lengthy and expensive litigation, directed to a final resolution of the parties’ rights, was conducted by both parties manifesting an intent ion wholly inconsistent with any continuing obligation of performance on either side Brewarrina Shire Council v Beckhaus Civil Pty Ltd (2005) NSWCA248 75
A maintenance provider was held to have accepted the  other party’s repudiation  by executing an agreement transferring  its  assets and employees to a third party although the transfer agreement did not purport to exercise any right to terminate WallaceSmith v Thiess Infraco (Swanston) Pty Ltd

(2005) FCAFC 49

103 and

152

Service of an appropriate pleading can be unequivocal election to terminate a contract. Janos v Chama Motors Pty Ltd (2011)NSWCA
na
23
The commencement of an action claiming relief on the basis of termination for breach normally amounts to an election to terminate the contract if such an election has not already been made. Perri v Coolangatta Investments Pty Ltd (1982) 149 CLR 537
A seller of land who on expiry of a notice to complete proceeded to advertise and sell the land was held to have manifested an election to t rea t the contract as terminated. Holland v Wiltshire

(1954)

HCA 42 ; (1954)

416 and

424

90 CLR409
The closing down of a business and vacating a premises
was held to be sufficient communication of the
termination of the lease.                                                         Karacominakis v Big 155                                                                                                       Country
Developments Pty Ltd
(2000)
NSWCA 313.

Quantum of damages

The Tribunal then went onto assess the quantum of damages.

To be consistent with the guiding principle of ensuring the just, quick and cheap resolution of the real issues in the proceedings, the Tribunal determined the question of damages, rather than remit the matter for further hearing.

The Tribunal then assessed the damages owing by the Builder to the Owner in the amount of $187,280.24 plus costs on the ordinary basis.

What does this mean for residential builders?

  • contracts need to be terminated carefully as the Court and Tribunal will consider the conduct of the parties if there is any argument that the contract was repudiated.
  • if the contract is not validly terminated it can affect the builder’s entitlements to damages.
  • if the homeowner terminates the contract, the builder would need to prove that the termination was wrongful in order to claim any loss of profits, demobilisation costs and loss of wages etc.
  • obtain legal advice before you terminate.